Men with an aversion to shopping for clothes might find their minds changed in an environment where they have happily shopped for other items for years now: online. But a market that has long been dominated by e-tail sites for women - a consequence of this larger audience being more able to find ready investors - last week saw the launch of a new player targeting men. From Net-A-Porter, one of the pioneering companies in online fashion retail, comes Mr Porter (mrporter.com), part fashion portal, part magazine. But why the decade-long wait?
"It has been a question in part of having the right web developers in place - people who might normally work for Google or Facebook - and of having asked our women customers what they'd like. The resounding response has been 'a site for men'," explains Net-A-Porter's founder and one-time fashion editor Natalie Massenet. "I think it's because it will make it easier to buy for the men in their lives."
For all that, Mr Porter is targeted squarely at the men themselves. The editorial content, updated weekly, is mostly style and style-advice-driven, but also touches on men's general interest subjects of the kind covered by magazines such as GQ and Esquire (from whence, in a move that surprised the magazine world, comes its new editor Jeremy Langmead) and aims to be a draw even to those men not intending to shop. And the clothing, meanwhile, targets a specific, male-friendly corner of the market: mainstream luxury. Some 80 brands for the launch season, selected by buying staff formerly of London's Selfridges, include Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Dunhill, Jil Sander and Yves Saint Laurent, to name a few, with more casual style from brands including Levis and Nike, and more classic from Sunspel and Turnbull & Asser. The site has been designed to be especially clean and easy to navigate compared with sites targeting women - less a comment on male intellect than on their propensity to get online, find, buy and sign off rather than browse for its own sake.
According to Massenet, creating a site consciously targeting male shopping habits has been imperative. "Men don't shop for clothes as women do because men's fashion is very different - it's more about personal style than following trends and does not alter radically from season to season," she says. "Men have a loyalty to styles and brands they find and like. Women want to know if an item is a must-have. Men want to know details about a particular buttonhole."
Mr Porter, of course, is not alone - most brands and many independent stores now offer their own online sales outlet. For example, while catering to both men and women, My-Wardrobe.com has recorded growth of 300 per cent in more mass-market menswear sales since it launched five seasons ago, with the Middle East, Scandinavia and the US currently its strongest regions. Similarly, menswear specialist Oki-ni has cornered a market for younger, more directional brands. Nor is Mr Porter's success guaranteed: Menalamode.com, launched to much fanfare three years ago, has since closed.
But what Mr Porter may be able to leverage is not only the access that Net-A-Porter's brand brings - "We launched that on the back-foot, having to convince brands that selling online was a good idea, but now we can walk straight into their CEO offices and they're already excited," says Massenet - but also the logistical power of its operation. Taxes and duties on all sales are prepaid and the company promises dispatch to 170 countries, including the UAE, overnight (compared with, in many instances, a turnaround for orders of three days or more). It also aims to put new products online weekly.
Net-A-Porter's entry into online menswear retail certainly hints at the sector's growth potential. According to James Nuttall, Oki-ni's marketing director, advances in technology have made online shopping more male-friendly, with higher bandwidths, higher resolution online image viewers and video all providing a greatly enhanced focus on detail, while editorial content provides style or historical context of a kind men especially like. "Some bricks-and-mortar shops can be such experiential places now that they actually get in the way of the factual approach to shopping that many men want to take," Nuttall argues. "In contrast, online now you can show a garment down to the fibre or thread in a way you can't even do in a shop."
It is perhaps surprising that virtual fashion stores are only now catering to men - after all, according to My-Wardrobe's buying director Luisa de Paula, they readily bought music, books, white goods and gadgets online long before women typically took mouse in hand and are still generally more savvy when it comes to using online resources for price comparison.
"That idea of an aversion to real shops is not always true," reckons de Paula. "Actually, men can be very tribal in the way they shop for clothes, being used now to going into very specific shops to buy their specific kind of clothing. But men are being drawn to the distinct benefits of online shopping - saving time, for example. With Mr Porter's launch, the breadth of the men's market is now being covered, from high-street to high end, which will help make online clothes shopping that much more appealing to men."
"What men really like about it is that it is a linear and systematised shopping experience," adds Massenet. "You don't have to wander through the lingerie department to find the menswear, for example. You won't have a sales assistant handing you a pair of jeans you'd never buy in a million years. And of course there is already a younger generation coming through that is highly digitally inclined. We're out to convince older generations of men to try it."